Rebel Princess by Blair Bancroft

The title of this yarn isn’t particularly original, as it makes me think of Princess Leia, but the story doesn’t lean on Star Wars very much. As the book opens, with a war game going on, rather like Star Trek— The Wrath of Khan, I was wondering if the author was going to borrow heavily from that story, but not really. Actually, Bancroft uses lots of science fiction and fantasy elements, but this is theme and variation, then more variation. As a writer, a reader, and an occasional viewer of science fiction, I see this story as fairly original, and since there truly is “no new thing under the sun” that’s a complement.

Oh, there are some aspects of the story that I don’t like. Most of the “alien” characters have an odd apostrophe in their names. I’ve come to view that artifice as trite, as so many science fiction and fantasy writers employ it. There are times when the narrative drags a bit, and the author tends to use too many sentence fragments. Especially. At times of high emotion. Oh wow. Get it? And, at least half of the main players have two names, because some are masquerading as someone else, which can get a bit confusing. Indeed, the author has a list of terms on her website, just to explain some of what’s going on in the story. Mostly, I didn’t need that, but it was nice to take a look at them all to see if I had guessed correctly.

Still, this story has lots to like, including a heroine (Kass Kiolani) who is brave but not at all prone to throwing caution to the winds. Since she was brought up as a royal heir, she thinks everything through. The hero (Tal Rigel) is mostly heroic and a lot less cautious than Kass, but vulnerable enough to be likable. Minor characters tend to be stereotypical, but there is some character building, especially the main character’s brother, who has some interesting “gifts.” The world building is better than some novels in the romantic science fiction genre, perhaps because this is the first in a series of novels set in this universe.

Solo— a Star Wars Story

Solo posterOur son is a big time Star Wars fan, and he initially said he planned to skip this movie. Based on the box office stats, apparently a lot of folks felt the same way. However, a friend apparently convinced him to go see it, and he came back raving about how much better it is than Star Wars Episode VIII. Last evening, hubby and I went with him to our very small local theatre to see Solo- A Star Wars Story before it closes up and leaves for cable and the Red Box.

I did like it rather a lot. The cast is really great, from a decent likeness of the main character by Alden Ehrenreich to a fabulous supporting cast with veteran actors including Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany, as well as modern favorites such as West World star Thandie Newton and Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke. The look and feel of the film, although a bit dark, is up to Disney and Star Wars standards, too. While I thought there was too much action (if such a thing is possible in a summertime blockbuster film) all of it was top notch.

For real fans of the series, there are some pluses and minuses of course. The film does a good job of filling in the small and big pieces of the original trilogy, especially those that occurred in the original film, Star Wars: A New Hope. Example: Han Solo proudly tells Obi Wan Kenobi that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessell run in 12 parsecs. How? When? And why was that important? Solo fills in all those blanks. How did Han and Chewy meet? Again, this film supplies some answers. Overall, the script writers (father and son Kasdan and Kasdan) performed a minor miracle in getting so much into two action packed hours.

Although I’ve read that it was a marketing problem, or a saturation problem—no one knows for sure why Star Wars fans have not embraced Solo. That’s too bad, because it is in many ways very similar to the much better received Rogue One: A Star Wars Story— it fills in blanks in the original film, gives us new characters to love and hate, and is a visual spectacle with a very good musical score.

Beat the summer heat and go see Solo—A Star Wars Story soon. Very soon, because it will be moving to video in a few short weeks.

Lincoln— the film


I’m not sure why we didn’t watch it when it was new, but hubby and I were perusing a list of the best films available for streaming on Netflix, and we chose to view Steven Spielberg’s ode to the controversial president. Gosh, there’s been so much written about this man. Historians can easily demonstrate how controversial and even unpopular Abraham Lincoln was during his lifetime, but since then his stature has ridden the waves of popularity, sometimes to heroic heights and then again to be mostly forgotten.

I’ve read some of the books and articles on Lincoln, but there’s many, many more that I haven’t. Still, the film version has much to offer viewers, regardless of their prior knowledge of the civil war era leader. For the two hours plus of runtime, the film focuses on the struggle to pass the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one which prohibits slavery, except as punishment for criminal behavior. Daniel Day-Lewis does a remarkable job of portraying the title character. Sally Field is also very good as the mercurial Mary Lincoln, and the supporting cast is peppered with famous and talented actors. When we paused the streaming version for a pantry raid, hubby and I commented that it was as if the script had been tailored to showcase some aging but remarkable players, including Tommy Lee Jones and David Spader.

Mostly, this is a really good film, but the beginning, although dramatically effective, leads a well-read viewer to question its authenticity. The soldiers who quote from Lincoln’s now famous address at Gettysburg seem so sincere, but it is quite unlikely that war weary soldiers would know by memory that speech, as it was not considered to be much good when it was delivered. History has given those words their significance.

Although I don’t remember the source of the recommendation to watch this film, I, too, endorse it. While the outcomes are not really suspenseful, the film holds the viewer’s interest. No biopic is entirely historically accurate, of course, but the spirit of truth is certainly present. Watch (or re-watch) and enjoy!

The Sound of Music (on tour)

MusicMy sister, my daughter, and I saw a musical in our local theatre venue— The Sound of Music. I remember seeing the 1965 film version as a child (and I am telling how old I am by that admission) and absolutely loving it. The performance was part of what they term their “Broadway Entertainment” series. The auditorium there seats 2000, so it is actually larger than most theatres on Broadway. The seating is a bit more comfortable, however.

I told my daughter that I was wary of not liking the stage version, but it was really good. The sets worked well, and the actress playing the Reverend Mother has one heck of a set of pipes on her! The actor portraying the captain was a very good singer, too. I do not believe anyone could do a better job of singing the part of Maria than Julie Andrews did, but the actress who performed for us did a good job.

While many of the songs from the movie were used, this touring version is actually closer to the original stage play that the film was based upon. Although my daughter was upset that they left out one of her favorites, “Confidence” the Baroness and Max sing in the stage play!

Our girls night out was great fun, from our happy hour beverages, to our meal at a hip restaurant, and the heart warming musical, with nary a naughty word, finished the evening.

Is last year’s best science fiction novel is this year’s best science fiction film?

movie poster image of The MartianI think so, but I certainly haven’t seen all of the science fiction films of 2015. However, last night, I saw Ridley Scott’s version of The Martian, and it is really, really good. The guys with me (hubby and our unmarried 22 year-old son) absolutely loved it, and they had not read the book. (I wrote about Weir’s originally self-published novel last year.)

No doubt there are any number of professional and amateur reviews of the film, so I will do a bit of compare and contrast with the book. First, the beginning and the ending are different. Not vastly so, but the visual medium requires a different approach. However, the spirit of the novel, as well as much of the plot, is intact. The film begins with the astronauts on the surface of Mars, taking care of exploring and introducing characters. The action begins quickly, as the storm sets in and the crew aborts the mission. In the book, the back story unfolds as stranded astronaut Mark Watney recovers from his wound, assesses options, and determines each course of action. Either way, the story soon slows a bit, as this modern take on “Robinson Crusoe” unfolds. In order to get the audience out in a timely manner, the events in the film are compressed a bit. However, some things, such as the mission commander’s affection for “disco” music actually work much better in the film, as 80’s hits make up much of the sound track.

The casting is excellent, and the amount of screen time for players other than the central character, Watney, reflect a slightly different approach to the story. In the novel, chapters go by before there is any mention of the characters back on earth, but that, too, is accelerated for the film version. Actually, I like the film’s approach better than the novel, as it ramps up the suspense a bit.

Some folks in my generation have been very, very disappointed in the choices our government has made regarding space exploration. (Or should I say, the lack of space exploration.) The Martian can certainly thrill audiences of many ages, as my son really loved it. But it will especially appeal to those of us who watched NASA missions in our youth, and dreamed of continued exploration. This isn’t space opera— it is fiction based on real science.

At the most basic level, The Martian is good entertainment. It’s not particularly violent, or sexy, but it has plenty of action. The conflicts here are mostly man vs. the environment, and the environment is very believable. Perhaps, however, the younger audience will also ask why our government is so concerned about minutia, such as providing everything from cell phones to farmer’s markets, rather than taking the lead on larger initiatives, such as exploring the solar system.

The Missing— a brief film review

Film, The MissingWhen I was growing up, I loved westerns. There was much to like about them: horses, good guys in white hats, horses, bad guys in black hats, horses, guns, horses, beautiful settings, more horses…. you get the picture, I am sure. My early favorites were “Fury” which was a show about a horse, “My Friend Flicka” which was about a horse, and the Roy Rogers show, which was mostly about the horse named Trigger. At least, that is how I remember it.

Then, I grew up and westerns were not in favor in Hollywood anymore. My early love of science fiction is all intertwined with my love of westerns. Once, I was amazed by a very intelligent woman who said she despised Star Wars. I laughed, and said, “It’s just a western!” As she gaped at me, I went on to explain that Star Wars owes much to westerns, from the bar scene (just a saloon) the greenhorn (Luke Skywalker) being guided by an older and wiser mentor, the gunslinger (Han Solo) and the Millennium Falcon, which doesn’t have much on a good horse.

Westerns have never been as popular as they were in my youth, but they have grown up. Recently, hubby and I were looking for something on Netflix that we hadn’t seen, and “The Missing” with Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett caught my eye. The description reminded me of an oldie but goodie, “The Searchers,” so we we popped some corn and got involved in Ron Howard’s take on the quest to foil white slavers in the old west. We enjoyed this suspenseful tale. The film has some fabulous scenery, very wicked bad guys, a very heroic mother (Blanchett) and too much mysticism for my taste. Oh, and there were several horses, but lately, filmmakers seem to think they are like cars or motorcycles, just transportation.

This plot could have been told in a science fiction setting, with space ships instead of horses, but it works reasonably well as a western. Check it out on Netflix streaming.

Mockingbird— a novel for children, but a good read for adults as well

Mockingbird by Kathryn ErskineMy local library doesn’t have an available copy of Harper Lee’s new/old Go Set a Watchman available just yet, so I chose a novel that I first learned about when taking a graduate level course in improving reading in secondary schools, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. The premise in this YA novel is that our narrator, Caitlyn, is a fifth-grader with Asperger’s Syndrome. I have a family member with a similar diagnosis, so this novel interests me on more than one level. Caitlyn had been quite dependent on an older brother, Devon, but he is not with her any longer. For anyone who does not know, the vast majority of symptoms of Asperger’s are associated with communications skills. Caitlyn exhibits many of the classic symptoms, but there is both humor and pathos in her approach to life. Her father seems to want to help her and connect with her, but he is suffering from a different malady. As the exposition unfolds, the reader learns that Devon was killed in a school shooting and their mother died of cancer a couple of years prior to the events of the novel. So the father is reeling emotionally, and Caitlyn is struggling with adjusting to these losses and with trying to develop empathy for other people. Other players in this novel include young Caitlyn’s teacher, counselor, and her fellow students. Try as she might, Caitlyn has trouble “getting” what others seem to understand with little trouble. This, too, is typical for Aspies.

Mockingbird derives its title from the many references to the movie/book To Kill a Mockingbird, and I do not believe that the novel would resonate nearly as well if the reader had not either seen TKAM or read it. But, with most readers knowing a bit about the famous story by Harper Lee, it is fairly safe to say that most readers will “get” the references.  Indeed, I really, really enjoyed the novel, but I did need some tissue toward the end— it is that kind of story.

Reading YA lit is more and more common these days, because big publishing is far more open to publishing those stories. Getting a contract is rather difficult for new writers of adult fiction, but YA sells well, so it is becoming a crowded field. I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers, but I do want to encourage fans of TKAM to read Mockingbird. Although it could be read by upper elementary on up, it is a touching story for readers of any age.

Monuments Men— on DVD

Monuments Men film posterA friend mentioned that she had seen and liked Monuments Men when it was in theaters, but I didn’t get around to seeing it then. However, it is out on DVD so hubby put it in the Netflix que, and we saw it recently. The cast is, perhaps, the best part of this effort. Lots of big name stars have roles, including Matt Damon, George Clooney, John Goodman, and Cate Blanchett. Essentially, this is the story of the men tasked with finding and protecting the art which was stolen by the Germans during World War II.

The script is good, but not especially memorable. In this film, however, the dialogue takes a back seat to action and suspense. And, there is certainly an element of education in the film. In order for the suspense to work, the audience must come to care about the historical artifacts and those who worked so hard to restore them to their rightful places. As my friend said when she recommended it, the movie isn’t great, but it is good, and it helps modern viewers appreciate the risks and hard work of those who went to war to help preserve these works.

Oddly, there are few people now who care enough to publish accounts of the destruction of art, as is happening in the middle east, much less go to war over it.

Unbroken– the book (review and commentary)

Unbroken coverWhen I was younger, one of the genres of movies and television that was quite popular was stories from World War II. While I wasn’t alive for it, of course, many in my parents’ generation had fought or knew those who had. Indeed, on a wall in my house is a framed picture of my uncle, A.L. Dodd, Junior, who was killed a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe; he was in Germany, in the Ruhr valley, when he was shot by a German machine gunner. So, the war was quite real to us. We enjoyed the stories, because they were entertainment, but knew that the war had affected most everyone in America.

After seeing the film Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, I was telling my sister about it, and she said, “Clearly, you don’t know the whole story. Read the book.” And, with lots of other reading and a bit of teaching, it was almost six months after hearing that advice before I got around to reading the book by Laura Hillenbrand. OMG, why did I wait so long? The movie is very good, but the book is great. Maybe I waited, in part, because I don’t usually like biographies.

As told by Hillenbrand, Louis Zamperini was quite a character, from his earliest days. His parents didn’t quite know what to do with him, and he might be described as a juvenile delinquent. His brother convinced the school authorities to allow Louie to get involved in sports, and Louie was gifted in running. So gifted, in fact, that he became an Olympic runner, and a very good one. He might have known even more fame as a track star, but World War II got in the way. After his plane crashes in the Pacific, Louie and two other Army Air Force survivors were adrift for a very long time. Then, on the brink of death, they were captured by the Japanese. Yes, Louie was still alive, but he faced incredible brutality.

One of my elderly friends is a survivor of a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. She was interned there as a child, one of several children of a missionary who fled there from China, because the parents thought that being in a U.S. territory was safer for their children. The treatment she and other family members endured was brutal, and toward the end of the war, the prisoners were scheduled to be executed before the Japanese withdrew. She was saved because some American volunteers broke down the fence and escorted the POWs to safety. My friend, to this day, cannot understand Americans can embrace Japan as our friends and allies. To her, they were a barbaric enemy, who starved her family and killed far too many non-combatants.

Hillenbrand does explain the brutality, through Louie’s account, and accounts by other prisoners. But she reinforces the brutal nature of the Japanese POW camps with survival statistics. According to Hillenbrand, only 1% of American POWs held by the Germans or Italians (the European theater) died, but in Japan 37% died. She also goes into the cultural differences which led to the cruelty, not as an excuse, but to let readers know more about the “why” which must come to the mind of her readers.

(spoilers)

The film, Unbroken, closes with the end of the war. That is a good stopping point for a Hollywood film; the audience can go home knowing Louie made it out alive and was welcomed home by his loving family. But, as my sister noted, there is more to the story. The book has a subtitle Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and it is appropriate. While I do not fault Jolie for leaving out the “redemption” part, the story is incomplete without Louie’s problems adjusting to “normal” life after the horrific experiences he had in Japan and how finding religion gave him the peace he desperately needed. The author continues to cover multiple story lines, including “Phil” the pilot to “the Bird” who was the most sadistic of the Japanese prison guards.

The entire story is important, and those who watch the movie get only the middle, so I encourage readers to tackle the book by Laura Hillenbrand. While it isn’t a quick read, it is certainly worth your time.